TAMPA — As a sophomore at Stanford, Chris Owusu returned three kickoffs for touchdowns, setting a school record and matching the most in Pac-12 history.
But in his first two years in the NFL, Owusu didn't get a look on kickoff returns. So he smiles widely when asked about lining up deep in practice last week with a new coaching staff to impress.
"It's been a waiting game for me. God's tested me with my patience," the 24-year-old said. "I love kick returning. Just being back there, our special-teams coordinator has shown great faith in me to put me back there. I don't plan on letting him down."
Owusu is part of wide-open battles at kickoff returner and at receiver, where little is guaranteed behind veteran Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans. He has made a strong impression on coach Lovie Smith, who first noticed his 40-yard dash time at the 2012 scouting combine: 4.36 seconds, matching the second-fastest time at any position that year. Smith has since been impressed by Owusu's consistency as the player quietly establishes himself at a position searching for its depth.
"Every day he does something to catch your eye," Smith said in minicamp.
Owusu came into the league two years ago with question marks after suffering three concussions in 13 months at Stanford. He went undrafted and was cut by his college coach — Jim Harbaugh, who had gone to the 49ers — and spent time on the Rams' practice squad before joining the Bucs as a rookie.
He had just one catch that first season, then was among the final cuts last year, spending a month on the practice squad before he was signed to the active roster. Though limited by a lower-leg injury much of the season, he finished with 13 catches for 114 yards, the second-best numbers last season for any current Bucs receiver.
If any player can be well-informed about the medical risks of concussions, it's Owusu, who was pre-med at Stanford and graduated with a degree in human biology. He's from a smart family of athletes, with a brother currently on Stanford's team, another who just finished playing at Harvard and a sister who plays basketball at Columbia.
So he fully understands the risks he takes going across the middle and as a target on kick returns, but he also knows how much football means to him.
"Life is short. This game is even shorter," said the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder. "For me to go out there and do what I love to do, that's priority No. 1. You want to be safe. You want to give yourself a healthy future. Me playing football, hopefully it's not going to limit myself in any way in the future."
Being a Stanford alum has benefits in the football world as well. Owusu was back in the offseason, spending time on campus with his old quarterback, Andrew Luck; tight end Zach Ertz, and another Stanford receiver who's since switched to defense, Seahawks corner Richard Sherman.
Whether it's as a backup receiver or as a new answer on kick returns, Owusu has two opportunities ahead of him in the next month. He's healthy, which means both potential jobs are within his reach.
"I've gone through a lot," Owusu said. "My family's been behind me, my friends, my agent; this team's been behind me. I'm really happy and really excited. … If we can take advantage of our opportunities, it's going to be a fun year."
Contact Greg Auman at firstname.lastname@example.org and (813) 226-3346. Follow @gregauman.